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A billboard for mayoral candidate Hector Bremner is seen in Vancouver, Sept. 14, 2018.Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

B.C. unions are paying staff to campaign in city elections without that work being counted as an election expense, even though the NDP government banned exactly that practice for provincial elections and the coming referendum on proportional representation.

Unions throughout the Vancouver region are relying on a discrepancy between two pieces of provincial legislation aimed at getting big corporate and union money out of the electoral system. Unlike the law overseeing provincial votes, the new local-election legislation allows for people working for third parties to campaign directly with the public, with some limits.

“A [paid] union canvasser is okay as long as they are communicating one to one,” said Rachel Roy, a lawyer whose practice has been flooded in recent weeks by unions and other activist groups calling for advice on what they can do legally.

There are very specific rules about what paid union members working on election issues can do – they can’t hand out printed material from the candidates' campaign if they are going door to door, for example.

But they are allowed to communicate with both their own members and the public, as long as they are not doing anything that falls under the legal definition of advertising, Ms. Roy said.

It is one of several loopholes that have cropped up during the run-up to the municipal vote on Oct. 20. A gap in the legislation allowed developer Peter Wall to contribute $85,000 to a billboard campaign featuring pro-development candidate Hector Bremner without running afoul of spending restrictions. The new spending limits have also not prevented third parties from endorsing a slate of independent candidates and donating much more than could be spent if the slate were running under one banner.

The Vancouver and District Labour Council has delegated four union staff to work on campaign communications for its slate of 27 endorsed candidates, including mayoral candidate Kennedy Stewart, without it being declared as a third-party advertising expense.

In New Westminster, a Canadian Union of Public Employees local is planning to do the same kind of activity, with one paid staffer.

Those people couldn’t be paid to do any of that campaigning with the general public if the law for local elections were the same as the new law for provincial ones, because that would then have to be declared as an advertising expense.

Since a third party is only allowed to spend $10,508 for advertising in the Vancouver campaign or $2,300 in the New Westminster one, staffers paid for multiple weeks would exceed that limit.

Unions campaigning directly with the public in one-on-one conversations is also open to the other 14 unions that have registered as third-party sponsors for the civic elections – a significant group. They represent almost a third of all the organization sponsors listed, and include big-hitters such as the B.C. Government Employees Union (BCGEU), the Canadian Labour Congress, three different Canadian Union of Public Employees offices and several firefighters' and teachers' groups.

Calls to several of these organizations were not returned by late Thursday, so it’s unclear what different unions plan to do. However, the BCGEU said that it would not have paid staff contacting the public as part of the campaign.

Premier John Horgan said on Thursday that his government will not intervene in the middle of an election campaign, but repeated his pledge to review whether the law needs to be tightened.

“We’re certainly watching the current round of municipal election campaigns," he said. “We’re going to look at the consequences of any violations of the existing Act, or any gaps that may be there that may be exploited by some, either with a billboard or employees in kind.”

Some civic-election campaigners are concerned about what they see as organizations taking advantage of a bad law.

“It may be the law, but we’re not seeing people act in the spirit of it. This is hardly best efforts to do the right thing,” said Mike Witherly, a strategist with the Non-Partisan Association in Vancouver.

The centre-right party has been mounting steady attacks on Mr. Stewart, saying he is getting free union help that he is not being open about.

Pete Fry, a candidate for the Green Party and someone who is being promoted on the Vancouver labour council’s slate, said he thinks the current law is a problem.

“There’s just so many loopholes and we’re seeing more all the time,” he said. Mr. Fry said it’s not a fair provision because businesses that might want to participate can’t do the same as unions.

“Corporations don’t have that same ability to [deploy] employees.”

However, others defend the current law’s permissiveness about union activity.

Coalition of Progressive Electors candidate Derrick O’Keefe, also on the labour council-endorsed list, said he doesn’t see a problem with the current law. Instead, he said, the biggest flaw is that it doesn’t require disclosure about donors in advance of the election.

Mr. Stewart said it’s inaccurate for critics to say he has four campaigners on his team paid for by the union.

“It’s just not true.”

The workers, he said, have nothing to do with his campaign and instead are working with the labour council.

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